June 8, 2015 by Jean
Last week, my 11-week singing workshop, sponsored by the Portland Public Library under a Creative Aging grant, ended with a public performance. We sang seven songs that we learned during our weekly classes, from a variety of musical genres and in a number of different languages, and then ended with a medley from the Sound of Music.
Before the performance, I wondered if I would be visited by any of my old performance anxieties, where I would have so much adrenalin pumping that I would lose control of my breathing and sing off key. My most humiliating experience of this came my sophomore year of high school, when I was cast in the lead in a school musical. I got so off-key during one solo that it was painful to listen to (although I was unaware of it while it was happening). I was fine singing in the chorus, or in a small ensemble, even a trio, but I never sang solo again; and I always felt this as a loss. In the first week of my singing workshop, the song I made up to introduce myself musically to the group included the lines:
And I always longed to be a soloist,
but my nemesis adrenalin kept me in the choir….
There were some performance anxieties at last week’s concert. The performance was fun and went fine, but it was far from perfect. Some singers had more trouble singing in late afternoon than at our morning classes. Occasionally, good singers got flustered and forgot their parts. Some last-minute changes to the keys in which some songs were sung probably threw some people off. My own gaffe involved losing track of where I was in a song and not coming in on time when mine was supposed to be the only voice singing! (Interestingly, this seemed to be the result of being too relaxed and letting my mind wander rather than of performance anxiety.) Some of these moments were reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s song “Send in the Clowns.”
And, at one point someone did send in the clowns. David, a member of our group with a beautiful tenor voice and an irrepressible love of clowning around, was assigned to sing the opening verse of the rousing spiritual “Down in the River to Pray” as a solo. At the appointed moment, David began to sing:
As I went down in the river to pray,
glub… glub… glub… glub…
There was a moment of shocked silence, and then both audience and singers cracked up laughing as David looked at the director and asked in mock innocence, “Oh, were we beginning for real?” We regrouped and started again, and it ended up being our best performance of the evening. David’s joking around had relaxed everyone so that the song had the upbeat, spontaneous quality that it needs.
We worried that we wouldn’t have any audience for our performance, but there were a couple of dozen people there, mostly family and friends of group members, and they were an appreciative and supportive audience. I didn’t expect that I would know anyone in the audience, and I was both surprised and thrilled to discover that my friend Anne had made the trip down to Portland to be there.
Despite various missteps and mistakes, our choral group ended the night feeling good about the performance and our singing experience. It helped that we have some hope of continuing next fall if needed funds can be found to replace the grant money. That prospect made this our “first performance” rather than our “only performance.” When the performance was over, chorus members milled around accepting congratulations from audience members, hugging one another, exchanging contact information, and making plans to keep in touch. By the time I got home, I was experiencing the mixed emotions that I remember from closing nights of high school musicals – feeling simultaneously exhilarated and bereft.
This singing experience has gotten me back in touch with my singing self, which is wonderful all on its own. And it turns out that I’m no longer troubled by the performance-anxiety adrenalin spikes that plagued me in high school; I outgrew this problem during my 40 years of performing at the front of a classroom as a teacher. This singing experience made me realize that I enjoy performing, with its opportunity to project a slightly-larger-than-life personality. At this point in my life, I probably could be a soloist, but I’ve discovered that I don’t long to be a soloist after all. In my musical introduction to myself at the beginning of the workshop, after I confessed that my adrenalin problems had relegated me to the choir, I ended my song with these words:
…where I learned to harmonize
and to love it.
And this has turned out to be true. What I really love most is not singing alone, but singing harmony with a few other voices in a small ensemble.